PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Darryl Strawberry was standing outside the Mets' clubhouse, pulling hard on a Newport. It's the last remaining vice in a life otherwise devoted to charity; he's created a foundation to help autistic children, the ones he says "have that pain in their eyes that I can relate to." But of all the souls Strawberry has touched, one remains beyond his grasp.
It's been a full year since the former slugger spoke to Doc Gooden, and the conversation did not go well. "He just blew me off," Strawberry said through a curl of blue smoke. Not that Darryl was surprised: He'd heard that Gooden was in the middle of a long, downward spiral, relapsing into a web of drugs and alcohol. Friends of the one-time pitching legend say he's crashed through the walls of his support system, which means he's no longer being tested, no longer attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has stopped speaking to those who used to safeguard his recovery.
Instead, Gooden's life has turned into a blur of the old addictions. After serving seven months in prison in 2006 for violating his probation because of cocaine use, Gooden is believed to be living on his own in St. Petersburg, Fla., although no one's sure what he does for money. Gary Sheffield has set aside $1 million for his uncle, but refuses to make it available to Gooden until he seeks help.
Not even that incentive has been enough to keep Doc clean. Ray Negron, one of Doc's former handlers, tracked down Gooden in November. He, too, had heard the worst, and was ready to come to Gooden's aid. But like Strawberry, Negron ran into a wall of denial.
"I called Doc and asked if he needed my help," Negron said. "He said, 'Let me call you back in five minutes.' The clock is still ticking on that call-back. I've thought about just driving around the streets until I find him, but I figure what's the use? If Doc wanted to be found, he'd get in touch."
The contrast between the lives of the two former Met stars couldn't have been more distinct Monday: As Gooden drifts out of control, Strawberry has found structure, if not peace. He's back with the Mets as a roving instructor and mentor, ready to teach the organization's kids about the dangers of fame. Despite being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1998 and losing a kidney in 2000 after the disease had spread to his lymph nodes, Strawberry still looks younger than his 45 years.He has a handshake that crushes bones; you just know the bat speed is there. In fact, Strawberry appears fit enough for Willie Randolph to joke about bringing back a one-time legend on a team suddenly racked with injuries. "We might have to suit him up," is what the manager said. "Darryl looks like he could still hit a hanging slider."
But Strawberry says he's truly finished with baseball, just as he's done abusing drugs and alcohol. The image-conscious Mets must believe it, too, or else they would've never attached themselves to such a risky reclamation project. After all, how many of Strawberry's previous pledges of sobriety have ended in disaster?
But it's been several years since his last drink. Now, if only Strawberry could rescue his former teammate.
"The thing about Doc, he tried telling me I wasn't doing it right, that I wasn't living my life the right way," Strawberry said, shaking his head. "So it was like, 'Whatever, man.' That was the last time we spoke. It broke my heart, really. Doc is such a great guy, I love him forever. But he never got away from the people who ruined his life. He's still out there with them, doing crazy stuff. So I keep busy with other things now."
The days are filled helping disabled children, educating the public about the country's autism epidemic. He's gone through so many other phases, from superstar, to rebel, cancer survivor, to tax felon and now this – charity for the kids who need help. Strawberry already has one St. Louis-based foundation and is planning to open another in New York this summer. It's not glamorous work, but his sense of fulfillment seems real. When Strawberry says, "This is what I was meant to do," it's hard to believe otherwise.
He's always had the gift of likability. Ron Darling said once, "Darryl has one of the greatest good sides I ever saw in a teammate." It was those demons that took him down, but when he was clean, sober and able to look you in the eye, Strawberry was the world's best friend.
Even today, the young Mets who don't really know Strawberry warm up to him. Standing in the clubhouse before batting practice, David Wright embraced him as if they'd been teammates for years.
But the bond isn't forged just from baseball: Appreciating Strawberry means more than remembering his home runs. It's the vulnerability that makes him seem larger than life now. The landscape of his life is pockmarked with mistakes, none of which he glosses over. "Been there, done that," Strawberry said, laughing. Drugs, alcohol, crime – Google tells the sorry tale. Thankfully, there isn't much residue, except for the occasional cigarette.
Better that, Strawberry figures, than the world Gooden now lives in. When asked if there was a way to help his friend, Strawberry nodded and said simply, "Pray."